Walkabout: The Fall of the Jenkins Financial Empire, Part 6

Jenkins Trust, BPL

It was 1910. The Jenkins family, Brooklyn’s most powerful banking family, was a shambles. Papa Jenkins, the patriarch, was dead. His eldest son, John Junior had been judged “not guilty” of grand larceny by a jury of his Brooklyn peers, but he and his two brothers, Frank and Frederick, were no longer in charge of the three banks that the family had either run, or established. They had disgraced themselves by stealing from their depositors, and then covering it up, and one would think that they would be finished in society, in business, in Brooklyn. Ah, but Brooklyn can be a forgiving city…sometimes.

Our first five chapters outlined the story of the Jenkins men, a family with banking and finance in their blood. They were among the many wealthy men of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who made their fortunes in Brooklyn, as banking was never bigger here than during that time. Every neighborhood seemed to have at least one local bank, most neighborhoods had several. Then there were the much larger banks, some headquartered in Manhattan, some on “Bankers’ Row,” on, or near the intersection of Montague and Court Streets. Trusts and brokerages also shared this area, as well as large insurance companies. There was a great deal of money in Brooklyn, and unfortunately, some people in charge of that money were under the impression that it was all theirs, to do with, and to borrow from, at will.

That’s what ultimately brought the Jenkins men down, after the financial Panic of 1907, along with several other Brooklyn banks. The largest of these was the Borough Bank of Brooklyn, which was run by bank president William Maxwell and bank director William Gow. They had been looting their bank as well, and even had loans out to John Jenkins Senior, when the crash occurred. Banking officials descended on them, as well, even before they got to the Jenkins’, and the resulting arrests stunned the Brooklyn banking community. William Maxwell couldn’t take the pressure. Alone, abandoned by his so-called-friends who left him to rot in the Raymond Street Jail for three days, he came home and committed suicide, cutting his throat in the bathroom, while his wife and servants celebrated his release downstairs.

Mrs. Maxwell was collateral damage. She was left penniless, as Maxwell’s fortune was mostly on paper, and what cash he had, he had desperately poured back into his bank to cover the losses. She didn’t even have enough money to bury her husband, and told the papers that all of his friends abandoned him when the indictments came down. Maxwell’s sisters in Flatbush, who had raised money to bail Maxwell out, ended up paying for the funeral, which was a private, closed affair. Since the bank owned the house they lived in, that too would be seized, leaving her only with her furniture, which she had owned before they got married. She was in the care of a nurse, as she was on the verge of a breakdown, and planned to go back to her old life running a boarding house, which was what she had been doing when she met Maxwell.

She never got the chance. In 1908, soon after her husband died, she was committed to a sanitarium in Pennsylvania. Her brother had her committed, and two doctors signed off on it, stating that she was completely insane. She might have remained there forever had it not been for one of her friends, who tried to find her for years. The friend was finally able to track Mrs. Maxwell down, and get a judge who issued a writ of habeas corpus, and ordered the sanitarium to produce her. A new set of doctors examined her, and said she was sane, had been for years, and should be released. She had been held against her will for four years.

Upon interviewing Mrs. Maxwell, it turned out that she had been committed in order to shut her up. She had in her possession papers from the bank, left by her husband, that incriminated not only him, but William Gow, the director of the bank. Gow was also under indictment for grand larceny, fraud, conspiracy, and a misdemeanor charge of writing a bad check. His trial took place in 1909, and like the Jenkins brothers, he got off scott free, convicted of only the misdemeanor. Had this evidence come to light, it might have been a different outcome. After Mrs. Maxwell was committed, the papers were destroyed. Both the District Attorney and the judge had good reason to believe these papers existed, and believed that Mrs. Maxwell was telling the truth. She was released from the institution, but the investigation against Gow was never taken up again.

The bank Maxwell and Gow had run into the ground reorganized, but by 1915, it was in trouble. Stockholders were owed over a million dollars, the money lost in the Panic, and by Maxwell and Gow, and they sued to get their investments back. This was in the days before the Federal Reserve or the FDIC. The lawsuits tipped the balance on the bank’s fragile rebuilding, and it failed for good.

Over at the former Jenkins Banks, the former Jenkins Trust Company, the most successful of the Jenkins banks, had reorganized into the Lafayette Trust, after John Jenkins, Jr. resigned from his post as president. They kept the organization’s headquarters at Gates and Nostrand Avenues, and two other branches, but closed the other branches of the bank. That wouldn’t be enough. By 1908, less than a year after the crash and before Jenkins had even gone to trial, the Lafayette Trust met and decided to close its doors. They just didn’t have enough capital. Not enough people wanted to invest in a bank that had been run by the Jenkins’, and many no longer trusted the bank’s management, some of whom were carry-overs from the Jenkins days. Stockholders were only able to collect $.75 on the dollar.

In 1913, banking investigators went after the Jenkins’ again, this time looking for the assets from a $200,000 mortgage given to John Jenkins Sr. by his son, from the Jenkins Trust. John Jenkins Jr. told the investigators that he couldn’t remember any details about a loan from that long ago. Other family members were also questioned, but all seemed amazingly unable to recall anything from six years ago. The investigators were at a dead end, and that case too, disappeared. After that, the Jenkins family disappeared from the news for almost twenty years.

In 1927, Frank Jenkins died peacefully in his sleep. He had been the president of the Williamsburg Trust Bank, and was the second son, and thereby privy to most of what went on in the Jenkins empire. After the whole nasty bank business, he had gone into real estate in Long Island City, and lived a quiet life in Far Rockaway. His obituary had more to say about his former life than his later years. He was survived by his mother, several brothers and sisters, and his widow and two children.

In 1931, the newspapers announced that John G. Jenkins Junior had finally succeeded in paying off the last of his debt resulting from the fall of his banking empire. Instead of declaring bankruptcy after the debacle, he had promised to pay stockholders back for the money they lost. He told the papers that he only regretted two things from the whole affair: that his father had died before he could clear his name, and that stockholders had to wait so long to get paid back. John Jr. had gone from banking to becoming a stock broker, at a firm called Jenkins & Kaiser, with offices on Broadway in lower Manhattan. He was very successful at it, but it still had taken him years to pay everyone off. He told the papers his standard of living now was very modest compared to his former life.

That same year, Jenkins, his brother Edward and his sister Lucy were all sponsors of the new Long Island Symphony Orchestra, a group of dedicated and talented amateur players. The group had grown out of the “Young Men’s Musical Circle,” a gathering of amateur musicians that had organized 53 years before in Williamsburg, sponsored in part by funds given to them by John G. Jenkins, Senior. The group was now headquartered in the old Jenkins mansion on Broadway in Williamsburg. The house had been given to them by the Jenkins children after their father’s death. John Jenkins Junior was very active in the booking and back office aspect of the orchestra’s management, and was still a patron, one of the four original people still involved with the organization.

From all evidence, John Jenkins had become a model citizen. After the banking debacle which stripped him of his livelihood, power, reputation, and almost his liberty, he moved permanently to Sea Cliff, to the home his father had built for him, and worked in his brokerage. Over the years, John had paid back over $700,000 his father’s debtors. He didn’t have to; a bankruptcy would have wiped all of that out. But, as he told reporters, it wasn’t the right thing to do.

So it came as a great surprise when the newspapers found out in 1932, that Jenkins had been jailed again, this time for almost two weeks, and no one knew. He was now 65 years old, almost as old as his father had been when he was indicted, back in 1908. The cause this time? He was in contempt of court, and owed $4000 in court costs, incurred when he ignored a summons to court for a civil matter. He had been incarcerated for many days before the press found out. When they caught up with him, he was in shirtsleeves, smoking a cigarette, and unconcerned. “I like the warden and I like my quarters,” he said. “I feel like making a study of prison conditions while I am here.” He was released by the courts, and went home after two weeks. He paid the fine.

But in 1934, Jenkins was back in court, and back in jail. This time, it was much more serious. He was in jail for stealing money from a client. Again. This time, it was one of his brokerage clients. The sum was less than $2,000. The client had given him the money to invest in Loew’s stock, but never received the stock, or his money back. Jenkins pled guilty to second degree larceny charges, and was out on bail before sentencing.

Unfortunately for him, this opened up a new investigation, and it seemed that Jenkins was back to his old habits. A string of bilked clients appeared, to the tune of $150,000 worth, and it turned out that his story of paying off his father’s debts was not entirely true. He had paid off some of the debt, but he may have used other people’s money to do it. The Jenkins name was in disgrace again. This time, however, the courts would not let him walk. After his guilty plea, the 68 year old Jenkins was sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison in Sing Sing.

And the topper? Like grandfather, like father, like son. In 1934, John Jenkins Junior’s son, Griffith, was arrested for pilfering from one of his clients. The 37 year old worked at his father’s brokerage firm, and was supposed to be investing $1070 for a client. He pocketed it instead. He also pled guilty, as allegations began to be raised as to his own activity. He agreed to pay the client back, in a payment plan, as he was broke, and the judge gave him a suspended sentence. His father was still in prison and could not be reached for comment.

John Jenkins Jr. died in 1939, and is buried in the family plot at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens. Griffin Morton Jenkins died at the age of seventy in 1965. From all accounts, he led an otherwise spotless and exemplary life. The family would fade into blessed obscurity. The only thing that remains of their banking legacy today are their buildings. They had taste, and hired great architects, and today, the Williamsburg Trust is one of that neighborhood’s treasures, now a church. The Jenkins Trust building would go on to become a factory for IBM in the 1960s, and is now housing in Bedford Stuyvesant. Both buildings were designed by Frank Helmle, one of Brooklyn’s best. When you pass either one, you are passing by the stuff of a forgotten history.

(1932 photo of Jenkins Trust Building on left, Nostrand at Gates Avenues, Bedford Stuyvesant. Brooklyn Public Library)

The Fall of the Jenkins Family Empire, Part 1
The Fall of the Jenkins Family Empire, Part 2
The Fall of the Jenkins Family Empire, Part 3
The Fall of the Jenkins Family Empire, Part 4
The Fall of the Jenkins Family Empire, Part 5

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